Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The White Queen

Having now watched the final episode of this BBC adaptation, I have a new standard for bad historical fiction.

It is hard to know what kept me with this one to the end: the first half of the series was less bad than the second half, and some of the performances - especially James Frain as the earl of Warwick, and Rupert Graves as Stanley - did keep your attention. And the basic story of the wars of the Roses is one that's well worth telling, and too little known: again, especially the first part, up to 1471, where frankly this one should have ended. At least we now know, mercifully, there will be no second series. When it became clear that we were being told that the younger of the princes in the Tower had in fact survived, I started getting hot flushes and fearing a storyline in which Perkin Warbeck was not an imposter.

But the real question: what was it that made this particular series so bad? I haven't read the novels, so I don't know if this was a lousy book which screenwriters couldn't rescue, or a good book wrecked by a crass adaptation. For what it is, I'd pick out a couple of key flaws.

Naturally, I'm going to complain about the portrayal of religious life, which rang utterly false - the only pious character, Margaret Beaufort, was depicted as almost wholly deranged, and nobody else seemed to have any functioning Christianity at all. The magic made no sense at all. Still, getting religion right is really hard. Even the sainted Hilary Mantel, who sets the gold standard of historical writing, seems to me to fall short on that one (though there is falling short, and there is blowing up on the launchpad).

More strikingly: there was not a single character of any significance, and indeed scarcely a speaking part, who was not a member of the high nobility. We saw nothing of any real people (it didn't help that the battles seemed to have about ten people on each side). It made Downton Abbey look like gritty realism.

But did I say 'character'? Those nobles weren't really characters, just chess pieces who moved around doing what the historical outline said they did, with simple motivations inserted to get them from A to B. And when the facts didn't quite fit the rationalised motivations given, well, too bad, you just worked around it.

And that I think is the real problem: a chronic lack of inventiveness and imagination. What we had was a 21st-century soap draped over some 15th-century characters. None of the blanks in the story were filled in with anything that rang true.

Historians usually complain that historical fictions get things wrong, which does seem to me to miss the point a bit: they are fictions. This one had a much, much graver fault: it failed to make anything up.

Friday, 16 August 2013

The servingmaid and the sultan

I'm now leaving the mid-seventeenth century behind me, for the time being at least, but time to share a favourite Quaker story. As regular readers will know, one of my recent preoccupations has been early Protestant missionary efforts, or rather the lack thereof. But the early Quakers broke that rule as well as all the others.

It is very hard not to be impressed by the story of Mary Fisher. She and a friend were the first Quakers in the New World, going to Barbados and Massachusetts in 1655-6, where they were arrested, had their books burned, were accused of witchcraft and had the good fortune to be shipped home alive. For most of us, that would be enough, but Fisher and her friends were still warming up. In 1657 (all this from a terrific article* on her travels) she and five other Quakers, men and women, set out to preach in Jerusalem. This rather idealistic plan soon gave way to a marginally more practical, equally apocalyptic, and considerably more dangerous one: they would split up, with some going to Rome to convert the Pope, and others to Istanbul to convert the Ottoman Sultan. By no coincidence, these were the two individuals Protestants had traditionally labelled as the two great Antichrists. After all, why waste time with small fry?

We don't know (at least, I don't know) what happened to the Roman party. One hopes they never got there: it would not have ended well for them. Fisher, however, struck out for the east. And she did it. Despite a horrified English diplomat who tried to intercept her, in 1658 she reached Sultan Mehmet IV encamped with his army at Adrianople, and managed to wangle her way into an interview with him, at which she laid out ‘my testimony for the Lord’. The Sultan seemed to her to be a perfect gentleman (not that a Quaker would have used such a word):

He was very noble unto me, and so were all that were about him, he and all that were about him received the words of truth without contradiction, they do dread the name of God many of them … there is a royall seed amongst them, which in time God will raise.

He pressed her to stay, and when she would not offered her a formal escort to Constantinople. What he actually thought of this Englishwoman is another matter. Perhaps he and his courtiers simply appreciated a little comic relief. But equally, he was certainly not used to Christians telling him that he had the divine light within him. And perhaps he, like us, could not help being impressed by her drive and her courage.

*Sylvia Brown, ‘The Radical Travels of Mary Fisher: Walking and Writing in the Universal Light’, in her Women, Gender and Radical Religion in Early Modern Europe (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 38-64.